Market microbial food safety instead of fear: Hot dogs do not contain human meat

The eye-catching headlines on the new findings started coming in waves. “Report: Human DNA Found in Hot Dogs” said USA Today, in a typical example. bizarre information came from a single document released on Oct. 17 by the consumer marketing arm of a company called Clear Labs, which had found traces of human DNA in 2 percent of the products sampled.

But don’t worry: There’s no evidence that hot-dog lovers are unwitting cannibals. It’s more a matter of hygiene in food production. The tiniest particles of hair, nails and skin could show up in these tests.

Even so, an executive at the company interviewed last week was unapologetic about the attention-grabbing finding.

“Its pretty unlikely that the human DNA piece is actually harmful to consumer health,” said Mahni Ghorashi, a Clear Labs founder. “We consider it more of a hygienic issue that degrades the quality of the food.”

Snopes, the rumor-debunking site, was rather more harsh, labeling the information “unproven.”

Consumers should brace themselves for more buzzworthy headlines as genome sequencing gets cheaper and Silicon Valley companies like Clear Labs, Beyond Meat and Soylent try to disrupt eating itself.

The Clear Labs story was an effort to bring marketing attention to the company’s use of gene-sequencing technology, first pioneered by the Human Genome Project. Looking at regions of the genome called bar code regions, the company identifies traces of animal species in food samples, including those that are not supposed to be there. The Hot Dog Report did contain significant findings, notably that pork had been substituted for chicken and turkey in 3 percent of samples, and that 10 percent of vegetarian products contained real meat.

But it was the human DNA detail that took off on social media.

The focus on marketing by food start-ups should not be surprising. While the technology is getting faster and cheaper, start-ups still have to attract investors.

Genetic testing: Sure that’s a hot dog

In 2013, European governments launched a massive investigation after food-safety agencies discovered that an alarming number of products advertised as beef were actually horsemeat.

animal-house-horse1In China last year, Wal-Mart recalled its “Five Spice” donkey-meat snacks after they were found to be adulterated with fox meat. In the U.S., Americans spend around $5.57 billion a year on sausages—but up to 14 percent of the time, the type of meat may not match what’s advertised on the package.

That last statistic comes from Clear Labs, a startup that aims to quite literally see how the sausage gets made. The company, which uses DNA sequencing to analyze the contents of food, claims its molecular database of around 10,000 items is the largest in the world—a tool it plans to use to fight food fraud, which currently affects an estimated 10 percent of the world’s commercial food supply. Earlier this month, it launched a Kickstarter campaign for its new consumer initiative Clear Food, a project to analyze and publish a report on a particular food category each month (backers will get to vote on the category they’d like Clear Labs to tackle next). Each product included in the report will receive a score based on how closely the label matches the content.

According to Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food safety at Cornell University, the FDA primarily focuses its efforts on keeping food uncontaminated, rather than the accuracy of labeling.

“The FDA does not have unlimited resources, but to be honest, I’d rather the FDA do more work on food safety than making sure that red snapper doesn’t happen to be tilapia,” he said. “I think private industry will play a very, very important role in this issue.”

So does Clear Labs. The company was founded in 2013 by Sasan Amini and Ghorashi in 2013, both of whom left their jobs at genomics companies to apply DNA-testing technologies to the food industry.  The process is similar to the genomic analysis used in clinical trials to personalize cancer treatments—when a hot-dog package proclaims the contents to be “all beef,” Clear Labs’ analysis can compare the molecular makeup of that hot dog against the molecular signature of beef, stored in the database, to see if it’s true. The company says it can also determine whether the label’s nutritional claims are valid.

“Once we started to test the U.S. food supply in a rigorous fashion, we started to see a 10-15 percent discrepancy rate between product claims and actual molecular content of the food,” Ghorashi said.

In the Clear Foods initiative’s report on hot dogs and sausages, the company analyzed 345 samples across 75 brands and 10 retailers, and found that 14.4 percent of the products tested were “problematic in some way.”

Around 3 percent of the samples found pork where it shouldn’t have been, most often in meats labeled as chicken or turkey, and around 10 percent of the vegetarian products contained meat. Vegetarian products seemed to have the most problems across the board: Four of the 21 vegetarian samples had hygienic issues (accounting for two-thirds of the hygienic issues found in the report), and many vegetarian labels exaggerated the protein content by up to 2.5 times the actual amount.

“We expected to find some deviations because it is a complex supply chain,” Ghorashi said, “but this is also about intentional adulteration for economic gain, which is basically fraud.”

Weidmann said that while molecular sequencing of food can inject more transparency into the food system, there are also significant challenges to consider. For example, DNA testing often yields false positives. And as tests have become more sensitive, cross-contamination poses a great risk to the results.

Bugs and band-aids, maggots and worms, all in Labor Day hot dogs

Maggots, worms, metal, plastic and even a razor were just a few of the objects that horrified callers said were in their hot dogs in complaints lodged with the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 2007 and 2009.

Stephen Rex Brown of The Local East Village filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2009 asking USDA to give up its ‘dirty-dog logs.’ The 64 case files finally came in this week, just in time for the Labor Day holiday.

One report told of a “winged insect that resembled a dragonfly inside the package of hot dogs,” and noted that the insect’s “head, eyes, and wings are visible. Insect is black in color, over 1-inch long.”

In the vast majority of cases, U.S.D.A. investigators determined that the gross-out did not indicate a pattern of neglect at the packing plant, and simply notified the company that handled the hot dog.

But on at least one occasion, even the federal officials in charge of inspecting food became the subjects of an investigation. As one document from June 13, 2008 reveals, a Food Safety Inspection Service employee bit into a rogue hot dog at an “F.S.I.S. Unity Day” cookout in Maryland.

A spokesman for the Hot Dog and Sausage Council, speaking frankly about the matter, said foreign objects in hot dogs were a very rare occurrence, especially given the roughly 20 billion wieners made every year. According to the Council, between Memorial Day and Labor Day — known as “hot dog season” within the industry — roughly 818 hot dogs are consumed every second.

A novel and nasty use for hot dogs—wildlife control

A man in Connecticut has been arrested on charges of using chemicals after police said hot dogs laced with the pesticide Furadan were strewn around
his crop fields in an attempt to kill raccoons.

Department of Environmental Protection Conservation Police said a woman walking her dogs along Great Meadow Road found a dead coyote near the Farmington River. EnCon officials said two of the woman’s dogs, a pit bull and Labrador retriever, gnawed at the animal’s carcass and became violently ill. The Labrador died and the woman contacted the Department of Environmental Pesticide Program for an investigation.

Is street meat safe to eat?

During my undergraduate days in Canada I tended to grab a bite after hitting the town. Though I rarely do it now (BK burgers just aren’t made with the same care at 3am), I do recall scarfing down hotdogs from street vendors during the wee hours of the morning.

But is street meat, or any other food prepared on wheels, safe, asks the Hudson Reporter.

[S]hould customers trust food that’s stored and cooked in what’s essentially an old truck? Is the food kept in a cold – really cold – refrigerator? Is the food cooked at a temperature that will kill any bacteria in the meat? And how do the cooks wash their hands and utensils?

Alex Fernandez, a California native who sells south-western cuisine from a food truck in Jersey City, said,

“You wouldn’t believe the laws we have to follow. It’s more [regulated] than you think. It’s just like a restaurant. No different. We’re just on the sidewalk.”

Frank Sasso, health officer for Hoboken, where there are 33 food cart and food truck licenses, said,

“Both food trucks and food carts, which are generally hot dog stands, must have a stent thermometer to check the temperature of cooked foods…”

Vendors must also have a way to clean their hands. Food carts are required to have some type of hand sanitizer, but are not required to have water available for hand washing. Food trucks, as opposed to carts, are required to have a source of water for hand washing, although the water isn’t required to be hot. Carts must also have hand sanitizer in addition to the water.

Sasso noted that most food poisoning – from restaurants, supermarkets, home kitchens, and elsewhere – generally stems from improper storage or cooking temperatures.

Carts or trucks are annually inspected by the local health department.

Did Maple Leaf’s listeria hot dogs sicken a dog?

It’s one thing to sicken and kill humans with food like Maple Leaf cold cuts – just don’t mess with people’s pets.

Carrie Pich of Windsor, Ontario, (right, photo from Windsor Star) is convinced her beloved Tigger — a two-year-old yellow Labrador retriever —  fell ill over the weekend because he ate Maple Leaf hotdogs that might be tainted with bacteria.

"This could have been a human. I mean, (Tigger) is human to us. But it could’ve happened to you. My husband could’ve ate two. He loves hotdogs."

Pich said she bought three packages of hotdogs last week: two packs of Maple Leaf Original Wieners and one pack of Shopsy’s Deli-Fresh.

Both products are among those listed in the recall.

But Pich didn’t know that on the evening of July 31, when she cut up three Maple Leaf Original Wieners to put in Tigger’s supper, and gave him one more as a late-night treat.

On Saturday morning, Pich woke to find Tigger vomiting blood.

Dr. Ameer Ebrahim, the owner and veterinarian at Cabana @ Howard Pet Hospital said he can’t confirm that Tigger suffered from listeriosis, but the dog’s symptoms were "very consistent" with bacterial infection, and he wouldn’t rule out a connection with the recalled wieners eaten by Tigger.

"That’s a very strong coincidence.”

OK, we get it, listeria is everywhere; what are you going to do about it, Maple Leaf?

Early on in the Aug. 2008 outbreak of listeria that killed 22 Canadians, the manufacturer, Maple Leaf Foods, adopted the line that, listeria is everywhere.

CEO Micheal McCain said,

“All food plants and supermarkets have some amount of listeria.”

Yesterday, when Maple Leaf announced yet another recall of product – this time involving nine wiener products produced under the Hygrade, Shopsy’s and Maple Leaf brands produced at its plant in Hamilton, Ontario – the listeria is everywhere line was … everywhere.

Randy Huffman of Maple Leaf said in the company blog yesterday,

“Listeria is a common bacteria – it can be in virtually 100% of refrigerated food plants. It also exists at low levels in one out of every 200 ready-to-eat food products and even higher levels in many other foods we eat …

“This creates a real dilemma for us. I have to be frank with you. Nothing we can do – nothing anyone can do – will completely eliminate Listeria from the food supply. Listeria is found in about 0.5% of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products based upon best estimates from the USDA. This percentage means that one out of every 200 packages is likely to be positive. I know consumers might prefer that this number was zero, and food safety professionals certainly strive for this goal.”

I thought you were Randy, but if you’d rather be frank, sure. And this is a Canadian recall, you may want to explain what USDA is.

Both Huffman and Mansel Griffiths, professor in the food science department at the University of Guelph, invoked the consumer-wants-zero-risk although I’ve seen no evidence to back up this straw-person argument. Griffiths said,
“There’s no such thing as 100-per-cent safe foods, no matter what food we eat.”

No one asked for risk-free food; but consumers do expect that those in charge of whatever portion of the farm-to-fork food safety system take responsibility for their own actions. Me, I told the Toronto Star the risk is that the listeria contamination could have happened after processing, and people, especially kids, eat wieners out of the fridge without reheating.

Back to the issue: if listeria is everywhere, what should processors and retailers do about it?

• Warning labels. Pregnant women and other at-risk populations should be informed of listeria risks, using a variety of messages and a variety of media. The supermarket Publix places all of its deli-cut meats into a plastic bag that says:

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses???

Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase???

And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase”

• Make listeria testing data public.

• Market food safety efforts at retail.

Because listeria is everywhere.

Wienermobile enters home, wasn’t invited

Although it’s National Hot Dog month, it’s been a lousy couple of weeks for Oscar Mayer.

On July 7, 2009, Oscar G. Mayer, retired chairman of the Wisconsin-based meat processing company that bears his name, died at the age of 95.

He was the third Oscar Mayer in the family that founded Oscar Mayer Foods, which was once the largest private employer in Madison. His grandfather, Oscar F. Mayer, died in 1955 and his father, Oscar G. Mayer Sr., died in 1965.

Mayer retired as chairman of the board in 1977 at age 62 soon after the company recorded its first $1 billion year. The company was later sold to General Foods and is now a business unit of Kraft.

Besides the actual hot dogs, Oscar Mayer is well-known for its Wienermobile. Amy saw it once on the back roads of Missouri. My kids had the plastic replicas (thanks, John).

Yesterday, Wienermobile was turning around in a Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, driveway, about 35 miles south of Milwaukee. The driver thought her wiener was in reverse but it was in drive. No one was home and no one was injured. No citations were immediately issued.

Maple Leaf discovers the thesaurus

Amy and me and baby Sorenne are headed to Boston, leaving Manhattan (Kansas) at 3 a.m. tomorrow. And whatever stresses come along, it’s good to remember the basics.

Amy and me, we like to write, and we make each other better. We also surround ourselves with others who want to do things better.

Michael McCain (right, exactly as shown) may run a $5.5 billion a year company but Maple Leaf Foods has lousy writers. They’ve got the on-line thesaurus to find synonyms like stringent, thorough and rigorous, but the writers utterly fail to explain what this means.

Yesterday, Maple Leaf Foods Inc. reported a fourth quarter loss that narrowed on higher sales and helped by price increases, fluctuations in the Canadian dollar and contributions from acquisitions. Results, however, were impacted by the recall of meat products, contaminated with a strain of listeria bacteria, linked to the illness and death of several consumers.

Uh, 20 dead and at least 56 sick is not several consumers.

The same day, Maple Leaf announced that it is proceeding with a voluntary recall of approximately 1,100 cases of wieners produced at its plant in Hamilton, Ontario because the products were shipped in violation of the company’s rigorous food safety protocols. …

Under Maple Leaf’s stringent food safety protocols, the Company tests for listeria species, not Listeria monocytogenes. Six species of Listeria exist, but only one, Listeria monocytogenes, has any potential to impact human health. This is an extremely conservative approach as it treats any positive listeria test result with the highest level of corrective actions. Due to human error, a small quantity of wieners produced at the Hamilton plant that were quarantined under these routine enhanced procedures was inadvertently shipped to distribution centres and customers in Eastern Canada. All customers have been notified and product is immediately being removed from inventory or store shelves and returned to the Company.

Why is the Company capitalized? Will the Canadian economy shrivel if one questions the Company? And did Michael McCain call each customer?

"Unlike other situations, this event occurred as a direct result of human error and did not uphold our stringent industry leading protocols." said Michael McCain, President and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods. "Notwithstanding the exceptionally low risk this represents, Maple Leaf is committed to maintaining the most stringent standards and we intend to live by those standards so consumers can have absolute confidence in the integrity of our products. We are taking immediate action and will not condone anything other than strict adherence to our protocols."

That’s a lot of words to say we screwed up, again. But it gets better.

"As we have seen with the wide range of food products which have been recalled to date in 2009, as enhanced surveillance becomes more pervasive in the food industry, positive listeria findings and related recalls will occur more frequently. This should be regarded positively as it provides assurance that the industry and government are acting swiftly to protect public health", said Mr. McCain.

Who is we? What are these food products that have been recalled in 2009? The ones that contain peanut paste shit? Or just listeria ones? Who’s enhanced surveillance? Sara Lee’s Bil Mar unit had a listeria outbreak linked to hot dogs that killed 20 in 1998. Why is Maple Leaf bragging about enhanced surveillance 10 years and another 20 deaths too late?

Maple Leaf has implemented the most stringent food safety system in Canada.

Canada? Where they have visiting U.S. Presidents sign a guest book and worship their vengeful beaver gods with offerings of back bacon and doughnuts (go to 1:25 min in the video below).

As I said in the Toronto Star this morning,

"People, especially kids, eat … processed hot dog wieners all the time (without cooking them) or just give them a quick zap in the microwave."

Michael McCain, since you’re the face of Maple Leaf, do you let your kids eat processed wieners straight out of the refrigerator? Should there be warning labels on packages of hot dogs not to eat them without cooking to a sufficient internal temperature?